Great Western Street

In 2009 I completed a unique project for Aylesbury town centre. Working with AJ Wells and Sons, I hand painted twin landscapes in vitreous enamel each five metres high and seventy metres long. Two years in the planning and eight weeks in the painting, from sketchbook to factory floor, follow the story here...

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In 2009 I completed two matching street length murals for Great Western Street, Aylesbury as part of the town’s transport hub development, transforming a dull underpass into a slice of rural Aylesbury Vale. AJ Wells and Sons Vitreous Enamellers were responsible for the cladding and were expecting artwork from me for their printers to silkscreen (as they do for all London Transport signage). In the event I chose to hand paint: a first off for them and a steep learning curve for a printmaker used to working at a maximum of fourteen by eighteen inches.

Mixing enamel pigment. Normally this ink is for silk screen, but to my untrained eye it looked like paint, so I used it as such for my mural.

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Ruthless organisation on my part was essential. Every day I arrived (sometimes before 5am) with my six sheets of paper detailing the requirements of the day’s six panels. I used a projector to transfer line drawings to the panels and then heaved them (with help) onto trolleys to check they lined up. After that I just had to make sure I painted the right colours into the right places in the right layers with the right patterns scratched into the right areas. Easy really...

To meet the deadline I had to paint six panels a day, every day. Here you can see the shine of fired enamel against the dull unfired enamel.

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Enamel is very sensitive stuff when it is unfired. I exploited this by scratching and drawing into the dry pigment. I also layered one colour on top of another, scraping through to expose the under-layer. Although I made detailed colour plans, the mark making was decided on the spot and it had to be a quick decision: there was no time for uncertainty. I caught myself out sometimes, finding I had to match complicated scratch marks across several panels to make up a ploughed field or hedgerow.

Scratching a design in unfired enamel using a sharpened stick.

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Working on the factory floor at AJ Wells meant I was part of a team, though in truth I was woefully inexperienced among the expert steel workers and enamellers that make up the workforce. I owe the success of this project to their patience and their generosity in sharing their skills. As I worked I picked up enough knowledge to be able to paint freely with enamel which has led on to more creative artworks on my part.

All my artwork was fired in this furnace to produce the durable, weatherproof surface ideal for art in the public space

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In all I painted some two hundred panels. As with any public art project, there were changes to the design along the way. Being the in-house artist, I was able to adapt the design on the spot: dropping the sky or adapting fields around fire alarm units as needed.

Daily administration, numbering panels for correct installation

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Luckily for me, AJ Wells had a laser cutting facility on site (they also make wood burning stoves) so I was able to design these hedges in stainless steel with an enamel frame which make up part of the finished artwork. The construction I left to the team of steelworkers and welders: there are limits to what I can pick up in eight weeks!

Ventilation panels in the shape of hedges

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The artwork was installed during the spring of 2009. If I had stuck to plan A, the town would have had a series of silk screen printed designs taken from my artwork. As it is, Aylesbury has a unique artwork rather than a reproduction. It must have been alarming for AJ Wells and Buckinghamshire County Council to place their trust in an unknown technique thought of by an unknown artist, but I think I pulled it off.

Bringing the countryside into town for Aylesbury’s bike commuters

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Now a part of the town’s daily life, these murals are still entirely free from graffiti two years on. I am astonished by the affection they generate in the local people. One man told me that he had changed his walk to work so that he can use Great Western Street because ‘I feel like I’m sneaking in a walk in the local countryside’.

A bus passing. My landscapes change season as they travel along the wall, taking the traveller on a journey through Aylesbury Vale’s year.

Take a walk through the completed project.